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Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Unionism… the Armstrong and Miller approach… November 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in The North, The other Sinn Féin, Unionism.


It’s rubbish, it can’t work…

But if it did work…

It won’t…

It might do

But it can’t…

Yes but if it did, you’d have to admit it’d be brilliant…

Armstrong and Miller…

Watching comedy on cable is a surprisingly good way to unwind. Sure, I know Conor of Dublin Opinion and others of you prefer Big Brother. That’s fine. I’m a pluralistic kind of guy. To each their own poison. I’m getting reacquainted with the final seasons of Frasier, avoiding MASH at all costs, checking out the Fast Show and recently caught the oddly nostalgic Armstrong and Miller. This is timely, if only because they’ve decided to reform after six or seven years (interesting too since I’d forgotten there was a Smack the Pony crossover – now there was a show, bar for the grim comedy ‘pop’ interludes. Top tip: not everyone can become a pop star, nor should they even try).

Anyhow, in a recently rebroadcast episode of the so-so, but often quite funny, A&M there was a sketch based around the above exchange where a scientist a cosmetic company proposed a de-aging device that would suck ‘age’ out of people making them young again. When the obvious response was made the point was made…

‘… but if it did, you’d have to admit it’d be brilliant’. Indeed it would.

Which brings me to Ruirí Ó Brádaigh. I’d said I’d write a few more words about the biography, and so I will. First, I’d still recommend it. He comes across quite sympathetically – and this is in spite of as much as because of the authors own sympathy.

It’s a fascinating read and a genuine insight into a character that was there during much of the travails of Republicanism during the later half of the century. One can only wonder what the meetings of SF and other organisations that he attended were like. To have been there with Costello, Goulding, McGuinness and so on must have been remarkable, and R Ó B seems at least somewhat aware of that.

There are a number of issues which the book glides over. It’s not entirely clear that the issue of political violence is dealt with comprehensively enough – or the contradictions between the aspirational and the achievable in real terms (for example one of the more recent jibes from dissident Republicanism is the idea that the armed campaign wasted lives of volunteers and this is an indictment of Adams and McGuinness. If so then it is also a crushing indictment of Ó B and others who must have realised by the mid-1970s that there would be no unilateral British withdrawal).

I can’t help feeling that somehow he is politically a diminished figure and not merely in the sense that RSF are completely marginalised. The project which he infused so much genuine and sincere energy has moved on to pastures new. It’s not the same. Not at all the same really, yet I can’t help but feel that there is something of an old Fenian looking on with a degree of incomprehension as the IRA supplanted the Repubican ground after 1916. Things would never be quite as they were, and the principles might actually change somewhat. Never a happy proposition.

Ed Moloney’s preface, which I critiqued some time back enlarges upon, exaggerates perhaps, but also reflects a genuine thread in the book which is the palpable tension between the old guard of R Ó B and the younger Northern based leadership. Well Seamus Costello, indeed Cathal Goulding some time earlier, could have told him about those sort of tensions. And realistically, it’s curious to see the incomprehension that developed over that issue when Ó B and others had used precisely that dynamic in the late 1960s to split away a component element of SF. In a way this is the one failing of the book, Ó B is presented as almost a naif figure – steadfast in principle but permanently let down by those around him.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness come out – well, not exactly covered in glory (incidentally there are a few entertaining bits of writing … for example on p.257 it is stated that ‘Adams… in the late 1970s, with his full beard and shoulder-length hair… looked and acted more like a hip young college professor than a wild eyed terrorist’… truth is that many many young Irishmen at that point looked exactly the same and it had no connection at all with ‘hip’ academics). But in truth it’s hard not to see this as a reading based on a flawed analysis, one which supposes that the only valid or legitimate strand of Republicanism is one that holds an almost theological adherence to the tactics and strategies developed in the 1922 to 1990s period.

I find that a most unlikely reading. I also find the idea that Ó B was a naif unconvincing. Whatever else he is and was Ó B strikes me as a remarkably shrewd individual, clearly quite likable on a personal level, but very very astute on the political.

Although… there are one or two stories which point to a certain detachment borne of a deep rooted idealism. And in addition to that a certain lack of interest in Unionism as an entity and a wish to paint it as something quite distinct from its actuality. Indeed if there is one thing that comes through very loud and clear it is an almost total lack of engagement with actually existing Unionism. The federal arrangement of Éire Nua might well be logical – by some lights (although why Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan would elect to go into a regional parliament has never really been addressed satisfactorily) – but it seemed so adrift from the political reality as to be almost pointless. I don’t want to overstate that. There were serious efforts to establish parallel networks, not unlike those of the First Dáil, but despite considerable enthusiasm they never took deep root. And a sense of genuine ‘negotiation’ and engagement seems to have been entirely lacking. This was the plan, all would have to follow it, not merely within the party, but far beyond it.

That wasn’t a viewpoint restricted to Ó B by any means, but it was symptomatic of an inability to come to terms with Ireland as it was, rather than as he and others wanted it to be.

And hence my reference to Armstrong and Miller at the start of this post.

Take this anecdote…

“In Boston, on a second trip in April (1972), Ó Brádaigh met William Craig. They were participants in a televised debate on Northern Ireland. At a reception afterward, John Hume, introduced Ó B to Craig, who offered his hand. Ó B shook it and the crowded room went quiet. After some small talk the discussion moved to politics. Ó B asked Craig what would happen if the British suddenly withdrew from the North. “Unilateral Declaration of Independence is on,” replied Craig. It was not a surprise; Craig, Paisley and others had been threatening UDI for months. What, Ó B asked, would happen if that was not feasible, if the Six Counties could not make it alone? Craig then brought up a system of regional governments ‘with the richer areas helping the poorer ones’. Although Craig saw things in a British context and Ó B saw them in an Irish context, they agreed that regional governments might work. They also agreed that there was too much violence in the north and that a civil war would be a disaster for everyone”

It continues…

“The conversation with Craig was satisfying because it suggested that some Unionists might take the Republican political initiatives seriously including Dáil Uladh”.

But how seriously? If one was seeing things in a British context and the other in an Irish context realistically they weren’t seeing anything similar at all. And there is an element of … what if this happens, and then what if that happens, and then what if the other? Each step moving to an ever more unlikely point simply in order to arrive at the pre-arranged destination.

The next sentence after the Dáil Uladh reference is even more telling. It continues…

“Unfortunately, IRA activities made continuing the dialogue highly unlikely as conditions deteriorated and some volunteers engaged in attacks that were contrary to Republican ideology”…

What is strange is the way in which Ó B can seemingly – from the evidence of the book – detach himself from the ramifications and effects of what was happening on the ground and appear oblivious to how these events impacted on his theoretical structure, a structure which was based on a frankly hypothetical series of events…

…you’d have to admit it’d be brilliant…

…it can’t work…

“Armies” without people: The recent attacks on the PSNI and the political futility of dissident Republicanism… November 14, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Republicans, The North, The other Sinn Féin.

It’s hard to assess the nature of an enterprise which considers that shooting at a PSNI member in 2007 somehow constitutes either a serious military or political endeavour. But such an assessment is necessary if only to demonstrate the tenacious hold that armed struggle has on some within Republicanism even at this point in time. A hold that the political developments of the past 15 years or so have done little to alter.

The details of the attacks are fairly clear.

A lone gunman is reported to have approached the car and opened fire, hitting the officer, shortly after the car left Dungannon PSNI station and as it slowed for traffic lights.

Despite his injuries, it is understood the officer managed to drive the short distance from the scene on Circular Road near St Patrick’s Church back to the town’s PSNI station, and an ambulance was called.

His condition in Craigavon Area Hospital was described last night as stable.

The attack follows a similar shooting on Bishop Street in Derry last week. Jim Doherty (43), another off-duty officer, was shot in his car as he left his child to school. That attack has since been claimed by the Real IRA, which opposes the powersharing deal at Stormont involving the DUP and Sinn Féin.

There is an element there of testing the water. Wanting to strike but being unsure as to whether to. But that is little or no comfort. To take up arms is to allow for the potential for killing. And to wound is to injure and to maim. The scant information available doesn’t indicate the level of injury, but it could range from minor to considerable.

The supposed motive?

It is thought the attack was designed to coincide with a meeting of the local District Policing Partnership, a forum for members of the public and community leaders to raise matters of local importance with the PSNI’s area commanders.

Last night Sinn Féin, which recognised the PSNI in January this year, was due to nominate its candidates for membership of the body.

The meeting was called off once news spread of the shooting.

But the meeting will be called again, and it will happen. Sinn Féin will nominate its candidates and they will sit on the DPP – as they should.

So what precisely is the point again?

There is a paucity to these shootings. A sense that they are little more than gestural acts. And that is all they are.

Because, apart from the fact that two people have had their lives disrupted in one of the most appalling ways possible, it is the sheer meaningless of this tactic which is so difficult to take. Do those who went out on Monday and last week genuinely believe that by shooting PSNI members they are in some sense furthering the arrival of a United Ireland? An obvious question, but one which demands an answer. Martin Meehan of PSF (and PIRA) was quoted as saying that during the height of the Troubles there was always the sense that ‘it just needed one last push’. Time disabused him, and many others, of that idea.

Sheer pragmatic analysis (or ‘objective’ as we used to say in the WP) of the material conditions leads to a very simple conclusion. Meehan was talking of a time when the North was militarised, when PIRA was able to field large numbers of Volunteers, when there was little or no political, cultural or social space for Republicanism. Yet even then PIRA was only able to move the situation to a stalemate. Britain could not impose their chosen solution. PIRA could not impose their will.
But however bad things got in the North there was a self-limiting aspect to the violence. Characteristics of other societies with similar stresses simply did not appear. There were very very few actions against political leaders from opposing communities. Violence between paramilitary groups from opposing sides was equally limited (consider how unusual the Shankill bombing was). There was almost no mobilisation amongst the middle classes and even within the working classes there remained (as Ed Hayes has noted on a thread yesterday – and it is an important point) significant sections who would not cede support to PIRA. That provided constraints to the level and ferocity of violence – although it is a back handed tribute to all involved in the processes that ingenuity managed to create circumstances that tested those constraints but rarely broke them.

So, it’s hard not to believe that what was achieved was about all that could be achieved armed struggle or not. Much is made on occasion about how Jim Lynagh and the ‘flying column’ model of activity on the Border in the late 1980s could have been a means of prolonging or even extending the armed struggle. Frankly, I doubt it. Whatever the sincerity of those involved in an age of mass overlapping surveillance I suspect that it would have taken little or no time for such groups to have been removed. And the Afghan or Iraqi model of insurgency – which has also been quoted as a template in a fit of enormous wishful thinking – doesn’t suffice as an example for the reasons stated previously… pragmatic political considerations trumped nihilism at almost every stage. Belfast isn’t Baghdad, Armagh isn’t Kabul.

So what do we have now? Dissident groups which can mount individual attacks of murderous potential but little more. To get to a point where they might challenge the state (a state that now has absorbed Republicanism in the main and in the process has also had to reformat itself into a configuration that is largely unrecognisable to previously existing structures) they would have to effectively rerun the process of mobilisation that took twenty odd years the first time around. Granted the initial momentum towards conflict was rapid and the earliest years were marked by the greatest violence. But that was at a time of massive sociopolitical structural change. This time it would have to occur in the context of a largely agreed state where there is representation and participation of all groups within the society.

I can’t see that happening. The pools of rage and alienation that in part contributed to the longevity of PIRA have been largely drained. The arrival of SF in government is – by whatever yardstick one chooses – a qualitative change in the nature of the administration of the North. The support for SF appears near-hegemonic, and… as importantly, the change in the nature of the society with effectively a decade of relative calm has its own calming effects. The engagement by the South (and here can I actually praise Ahern for a second for recent comments on FF in the North?) however cosmetic on some levels is clearly genuine on others such as infrastructural funding. The dismal sense that Nationalists were a forgotten people shrugged aside by the Irish polity at partition is no longer true and partitionism not withstanding all know it isn’t true. So the sort of ‘defenderism’ which characterised some, but not all, of the struggle has little or no currency any longer.

But there is something strange about these acts if one places them within the context of Irish Republicanism. This must be the very first time in that history during the last 80 odd years where acts are carried out by groups with no political representation at all (and I’m deliberately discounting the micro-groups that were carried along on the tail of the Troubles  – or indeed during the Border campaign – since there was a broader political context)  and are carried out anonymously. While that may seem to fit a template of the Troubles it actually doesn’t as regards mainstream Republicanism. From 1916 onwards violence was used either overtly and by (semi) uniformed groups (as with 1916 and the Border Campaign) or within the context of a broader socio-political struggle and as a means of placing pressure on clearly defined targets. I’ve said it before, I think the armed struggle was a cul-de-sac after the first ‘defensive’ stages and we can all argue the toss about when that ended, but having said that I wouldn’t minimise the difficulties that would have been faced even in the absence of an armed campaign as regards altering the societal structures. Yet violence happened within social structures, a hinterland if you will, that placed certain constraints upon those engaging in armed conflict.

Contemporary dissident Republicanism has no such constraints. The organisations that support it have no representation and as such have not even the most peripheral degree of oversight from those they nominally represent. This is a very disturbing situation. The only analogues I can think of are the urban terrorists of the 1970s on the continent who by dint of their separation from the people in effect became a self-referential elite.

Hence the recourse to the rhetoric of the ‘Republic’ by those who continue to ‘dissent’ because when you lose the people, or a sizeable section of same all one is left with is ideas. But their notion of a Republic appears more and more to be a semi-theological concept with less and less relationship to the existing world. The concentration on ‘sovereignty’ understandable but irrelevant.

Jackie McDonald made a number of statements at the weekend about the UDA. Much of it was the sort of rhetoric one might expect. A lot less polished and varnished than we are used to from SF, but one phrase caught my attention (and that of Splintered Sunrise). He said that the UDA’s weapons were the people’s weapons. Hyperbole, of course. And utterly self-serving.

But I can’t help feeling when one looks at the RIRA that their time has passed. The GFA remains. The current institutions may be unloved – but they are worked. And they represent the people – whatever that strange amorphous body of many different individuals may be. And, it seems to me that any Republic can only root itself in the people. And those people, not the groups who would act on behalf of a Republic of the imagination, voted this year overwhelmingly for candidates who support the GFA institutions.

Which means that when it comes down to it perhaps the people want their weapons back.

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Ed Moloney and the thorny problem of ‘principle’… August 28, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Republicanism, Sinn Féin, The other Sinn Féin.


I’m reading Robert White’s book on Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, and I have to admit to finding it both an enjoyable read, a fascinating insight into the genesis (or perhaps more accurately the continuation) of a certain strand of Republicanism – one that would be very different to my own – and essentially a good appraisal of the man and his times. It’s difficult to entirely judge Ó Brádaigh’s character this early into the book, I’ll keep you posted. Certainly it is a book that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the area.

There’s a lot to think about. For instance – and Ó B does critique this in the text – the reification of abstentionism from the national parliament does appear to be at least connected on some level with the political career of his own father, Matt Brady, who was an Independent Republican councillor but never a TD, in his native Longford. I’ve never bought into abstentionism (bar Westminster). It has always seemed to me to be a massive strategic error and one which no principle can really explicate. Why county and not national? Both draw legitimacy from the same legal sources, but more importantly both draw a greater legitimacy from the tacit approbation of the Irish people. One can’t help suspecting that they represent a fetishistic touch stone rather than a considered position – except on one very significant level which is that once inside a national parliament the nature of the engagement by a political force does actually change. Any of us who went through parties who wrestled with attaining that level of representation know that process all too well. So if one wishes to retain integrity, best stay out. But… one can almost be guaranteed of political marginalisation.

One remarkable element that White notes is the incredibly good relations between Ó B’s father and former IRA man, later Fine Gael TD Seán Mac Eoin who delivered the oration at his funeral (and offered a Defence Forces bugler which was accepted by Ó B’s mother on condition that he was not in uniform, a condition that was complied with). Indeed there’s a whole history of how locally FG and Matt Brady voted together on council resolutions to oppose the Treason Bill and the Offences Against the State Act. The real enemy, whatever the rhetoric, was of course Fianna Fáil. Then there is the Border campaign. Now there was a failure, and one that was a failure almost from the off with columns picked up on the same day as incidents and the IRA leadership pulled in shortly thereafter. It kept going, but the lessons learned, or not as rumblings in South Armagh two and a half decades later about ‘flying columns’, seem to have merely added to the belief in an armed campaigns efficacy – any armed campaign. Anyhow, those are discussions for another day.

But, above and beyond this I want to mention the Foreward written by Ed Moloney [I should note that I’ve always liked Moloney’s work, A Secret History of the IRA is a great read]. And what a Foreward it is, since rather than concentrating on the sterling qualities of R Ó B, we are instead treated to a compare and contrast between R Ó B and …er… Gerry Adams.

Moloney contrasts the way in which he was ‘manipulated’ by the Adams camp in 1980 in such a way as to lock him out of communications with the Ó Brádaigh camp. Poor old Danny Morrison is painted in dubious colours… as Moloney says after spending “…many hours together that Summer, often on the road…the article was writen and looking back on that episode it is difficult not to conclude, unhappily, that much of it reflected the direction I was steered towards’. That Kerouac-like interlude was clearly replaced by a Damascene conversion at some point… because as he notes:

“I was able quite easily to confirm the Provisionals were indeed riven at that time with divsion and tension and two camps now existed, one represented by Adams and his young, militantly left-wing northern supporters and the other led by Ruiarí Ó Brádaigh…the older southern-based veterens who had been at the forefront of the first leadership of the Provisionals… suffice it to say that my article oversimplified the dispute to the advantage of the northerners, portraying it as being about left versuis right, young and angry versus old and jaded, revolutionaries versus conservatives, the clever and imaginative versus the dull and gullible. I would not write the same article today…”


According to Moloney, Morrison led the charge to condemn his article at the next Ard Comhairle meeting, and this was evidence of a “classic Adams stratagem, one characterised by its multiple goals and a level of deceit in implementation”.

Now let me stop right here and note that the organisation which Moloney was dealing with was one of the most efficient and ruthless political/paramilitary organisations ever seen in Western Europe. Not the Scouts, not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not even the Rotarians, but instead a grouping capable of appalling acts of political murder, enormously complex negotiation and political organisation of much of a community.

And the complaint is ‘deceit’?

Moloney though, considers that this is a ‘metaphor’ for the difference between R Ó B and GA and their ‘brands of Irish Republicanism’. And hence why Adams is now leader of a party represented in ‘four parliaments’ while Ó Brádaigh ‘heads a small group…on the margins of Irish politics’.

Adams is characterised as ‘deceiving’, ‘pretending’, ‘breaking the rules’, ‘lying’ ‘lying grotesquely’ and ‘lying routinely’, whereas the ‘ethical difference’ with Ó Brádaigh is one where the latter ‘simply refuses to answer (a question on membership of the IRA)’, ‘played by the rules’, ‘felt obliged to obey AC edicts’, ‘would not tell the full story or would dodge the matter if it suited him’, and these paragons of ethical virtue ‘were the yin and yang of the Provisional movement’.

Yin and yang if one’s definition stretches to some distinction between evasive and deceitful, or sins of ommission and commission.

And the differences are because?

Well, according to Moloney it is because of… location, location, location. Ó Brádaigh ‘could trace ideological roots all the way back to the 1916 Rising…’. Whereas ‘Collins and de Valera were willing to exchange principle for power’ R Ó B ‘came from the uncompromising wing of Republicanism for whom principles were sacred because Republicans had died and suffered for them, in Ó B’s case, his father…’.

Compare and contrast. Compare and contrast.

‘Adams had family ties to all this, but his roots were in the northern IRA, and the northern IRA was always different from the IRA…’. An instance he offers us is the way in which the northern IRA supported (the hated – wbs) Collins during partition because Collins ‘waved a big stick at the Unionist and Protestant establishment in the north and stood up for Catholic Rights’.

Well fancy that.

Northern ‘activists’ are charged with supporting the northern IRA which took the opportunity to ‘strike back violently at the state and people which had for so long discriminated and oppressed their fellow Catholics’.

This thesis is developed further by noting that the Provisionals came in large part from “Defenderism” and sectarian traditions of Irish Republicanism, so unlike those of R Ó B. So this ‘defence’ led to pragmatism, and ultimately the original sin of the ‘peace process’ after which further pragmatism led to accepting the ‘consent principle’ and eventually – although this predates Stormont – government with the DUP.

After which all one can say is, well, perhaps – just perhaps – if one was in Belfast dealing with all that that environment might throw at one in political terms standing up to Unionism and attacking those who had discriminated and oppressed one might just take a bit higher priority than the ‘principle’ of the Republic.

Perhaps too the reality of having to deal with Unionists on a day to day basis gave a certain breadth of vision.

Moloney’s charge is massively contradictory. Those in the north, who the situation most impacted upon, are the very ones who are criticised because they’re from the North. And therefore anything that they were involved in is immediately suspect. It’s a circular argument of breath-taking audacity.

No mention of the shambolic campaign throughout the 1970s or what of the internecine warfare with the Officials on the watch of the southern leadership. No mention of cessations in the 1970s either. No sense that those who had led had some pretty profound failings in the eyes of those they led, particularly those involved at the hard end.

Now, I’m happy to critique the 1980s leadership as I would PIRA, probably in much the same way as I would critique the 1970s leadership. I can understand how violence erupted, but to sustain and expand that level of that violence throughout the 1970s into the 1980s and then on to the 1990s is less understandable. I could condemn out of hand, and it wouldn’t be difficult, but I don’t think that would be useful, nor would it be entirely honest. I don’t want to retreat to a defence centred on my not being there at the time, but… the dynamics within organisations and environments is such that choices are often made and paths taken that in other circumstances wouldn’t have been. That they are often self-sustaining is often not hugely pertinent. They exist.

And here I think is the enormous contradiction at the heart of Moloney’s thesis. Because in a sense it is irrelevant what sort of people R Ó Brádaigh and Adams were. It is what they did that is important. If one took Ó Brádaighs line then there was no compromise, no messy deals, no ‘acceptance’ of the principle of consent. Instead there would be nothing but steadfast allegiance to a tradition that had delivered almost nothing in the years since partition. If one took Adams line then there was compromise, pragmatism, realpolitik and a fundamental reshaping of what it meant to be Republican.

Is principled resistance any less cynical when it assists young men and women to go out to die in a cause that cannot be won than unprincipled pragmatism that eventually stops the killing for an unsatisfactory compromise?

And even if Adams were completely wrong, which he and his might well be, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that Ó Brádaigh was right, nothing indeed other than the comforts of resistance, abstentionism and an increasing isolation from the Irish people who above all should be central to any Republican project.

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